Getting out of the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui is precarious. The road is clogged with people pulling their handmade wooden carts. And then there are the potholes, and other cars swerving around them, to avoid. Added to that is the livestock running about freely.
But we’re safe in God’s hands, surely. At the wheel is Catholic Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, president of Caritas Central African Republic. In the car is also a senior Muslim leader, Imam Oumar Kobine. Besides that, we also have regional African peacekeepers escorting us too.
We’re heading in a convoy to Bossangoa, 350 km to the north. With us is a truck load of clothes and rice for the people who are seeking safety there from the anarchy pulling the country apart. As well as providing aid to those people, trapped in a Catholic mission compound, the archbishop and imam will be promoting peace between local communities.
Nobody knows what to expect. For a start, there are the Seleka fighters to worry about. They overthrew the government in March 2013 and seized control of the country. They’re a loose coalition of local and foreign fighters, mostly Chadian and Sudanese.
The president they put in power, Michael Djotodia, has instructed them to hand in their weapons and join the national army. But those orders have largely been ignored.
A few weapons were collected but many of the Seleka remain armed. Efforts at demobilisation have been an even greater failure: Seleka’s ranks have swelled from 3000 to 22,000 since March.
As we move north, the landscape becomes spectacular, with a baffling variety of trees, a stunning lake, rivers and clouds of butterflies. It brought home the vastness of a country that is twice the size of France with just 4.6 million inhabitants.
After 200 km, we reached Bossambele, where the paved road stops and the dirt track begins. From then on, we noticed the villages become more sparse. Then the people disappeared altogether. Eventually, every house passed is empty.
For four hours, we see abandoned village after abandoned village. The inhabitants had evidently gone in a panic, leaving everything behind. In one village, oranges lay rotting on the floor where they had fallen from the trees.
We see signs of violence like doors of houses smashed in. Then come the first burned houses. Then more abandoned villages, more torched homes.
We stopped at a village where a few weeks ago Seleka fighters were ambushed by self defence militias, known as the Anti-Balaka (Anti-Machete). Seleka retaliated by targeting villages they accuse of harbouring the militias.
The villagers have now fled. Archbishop Dieudonné said, “They are reduce to living and dying like animals in the bush.”
When we reach the Catholic mission compound in Bossangoa, we find 41,000 people crammed inside in terrible conditions. They’re living in constant fear, unable to go more than 5 km from the compound without being targeted. It’s a safe haven of sorts, but its vulnerability is tangible, etched in the fear on people faces.
It was on the way back to Bangui that we experience their fear for ourselves. We came to a checkpoint, where we were approached by a tall Seleka commander in a combat uniform with a red beret. He was from Chad. So were the two men with red and green turbans flanking him.
The commander looked on disdainfully while the imam gave his greeting in Arabic. He seemed unimpressed by either the archbishop with a large silver cross or the imam with his flowing robes. He ordered us out of the car. Reluctantly, we agreed.
There were words spoken in the local Sango language between the archbishop and the commander. The man wearing the green turban climbed into the car to search the bags. I opened them for him to stop him ripping them apart. In the other vehicle, a rebel with a hand grenade swinging from his belt led the search.
Our African peacekeeping military escort stood around, watching. They were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Seleka fighters. One of the Seleka men was pointing his rocket propelled launcher directly at them. Another was walking around holding rockets in his hands. “I think he uses them to hit people on the head,” said one of our military protectors.
Here we were at their mercy, despite being with an archbishop, an imam and a military escort. I can’t imagine the terror and helplessness experienced by ordinary villagers.
The archbishop managed to get a government minister on the phone who relayed the situation to the president. He offered to send a plane for us. But by then we were back in our car making it to Bangui as fast as we could.
As we drove, the archbishop said the Seleka commander had been unimpressed by the phone call: “I don’t answer to ministers. As for the president, we put him into office.”
Caritas is supporting the Catholic Church in the Central African Republic’s call for a UN peacekeeping force to be deployed under Chapter VII powers to maintain peace.